Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly precipitate an unparalleled reduction in traffic fatalities. And as someone who is deeply disturbed by the sheer magnitude of carnage our society is willing to tolerate for the sake of motorists’ convenience, I absolutely welcome this change. However, while Voltaire cautions us to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, we are at the precipice of an incredibly troubling convention to be embedded into the state of our transportation system. I am of course referring to Mercedes-Benz’s announcement that they will be prioritizing the lives of vehicle occupants over all other people using the street. I wish to explore the disconcerting implications of elevating the value of customers’ lives over those of bystanders, and moreover, the general decline in our collective ability to distinguish between moral and economic philosophies.
Moments after Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director, Paul Steely White, opened the Vision Zero Cities conference by imploring the audience to regard Vision Zero not as a mere slogan, but as an achievable target, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, sullied the room’s enthusiasm by flatly stating that the goal, while laudable, was in fact impossible. The commissioner’s skeptical assessment, while disappointing—and as I will discuss momentarily, false—was ultimately unsurprising. But I would venture to guess that beyond the circles of activists, academics, and experts who better understand the nature of traffic violence, Bratton’s sentiment is largely shared by the general public. So long as people are walking, bicycling, and driving in close proximity to one another, won’t there always be the occasional confluence of circumstances that will tragically end in the death or serious injury of someone?
It is difficult to pinpoint a single idea or experience that led me to believe that our current allocation of street uses is inherently unjust. There was no epiphanic “a-ha!” moment, nor a sudden catalyst which concretized my convictions. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult to explain my perspective, which is admittedly quite distant from the conventional viewpoint. In light of this, any attempt to boil down the essence of my beliefs into a satisfactory starting point has proved to be quite challenging.
In my attempts to do just that however, I kept returning to this one point which is necessary to understand my views. That is, there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Now, I don’t just mean this in the obvious sense, in that a person can never fully remove their own self-interest and personal experience from consideration in pursuing true impartiality. What I mean is that all systems, by their very nature, harbor implicit biases which favor some things over others. All systems have incentives and disincentives woven into their very fabric. Moreover, there is an implied balance of power in any given framework. To claim that something is neutral can only be true relative to a given system, not in any absolute sense.Continue reading
There is perhaps no meteorological event more aesthetically pleasing than a heavy snowfall. The sense that crystalized vapor carries in it the transformative power to invigorate the mundane and ornament the begrimed is among the most wonderful attributes of winter. Yet the transformative powers of snow are not limited to mere aesthetics, for it also carries in it the capacity to transform a public space, and consequently the very essence of a neighborhood.
A street is not often understood as a public space in our current conception of the word. For our lifetimes and the lifetimes of everyone we have ever personally known, streets have been synonymous with motion—synonymous with roads. And the conflation between street and road is indeed an unfortunate one, whereby our confusion is carried through to its design, and set in place by concrete. More precisely, a road is a way from one place to another whereas a street is a place in and of itself.
The Eternal Complexities of Time Travel
If you could travel back in time, what would you do? The answer given to the point of banality is to kill Hitler as an infant. Yet, surely this would be a thankless job. Without any knowledge of the atrocities he would beget, you would certainly not enter the canons of history as the savior who prevented the deaths of millions from war and genocide. You would receive no recognition from the men, women, and children who would have come to be murdered by his regime, for no one would have ever known that they were to be in danger. Rather, you would be known only to the locals of a small Austrian town as the scumbag who killed a defenseless child.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand the impulse. Who wouldn’t want to save the lives of countless innocents, recognition be damned? No doubt, you are a selfless individual who would gladly take one for the team. What I have a harder time understanding though is how a great many of us would enthusiastically defy the laws of physics only to be sent to the gallows shortly thereafter, while paying so little attention to actions we can take in the present which will assuredly prevent deaths of the more quotidian variety in our own future. Continue reading
Though New York is certainly a popular destination for Montrealers, not many New Yorkers realize how easy it is to get to Montréal. The drive is comparable in duration to Boston or Washington, especially when factoring in the heavy traffic along the Northeast Corridor.
Over the past seven years I have traveled between my hometown in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley and my university in Montréal countless times. Considering that you can get from one to the other by just about every conceivable mode of transportation, I thought I would outline the pros and cons of each one. I have been asked from time to time to recommend the best way, however the answer is highly dependent on your circumstances. Continue reading
People like being stuck in traffic the way they like hearing nails against a chalk board; with the exception of a few masochistic individuals, it is universally loathed. If only the <Feds, State, County, City> would add another road no one would have to sit in this parking lot. Now of course one could imagine a number of logistical reasons to refute this fallacious line of reasoning: bottlenecking, merging delays, turning delays, signal delays, start-up delays and even further demand induced by the new connection, to name a few. While those are all certainly valid criticisms, what I intend to discuss here has nothing to do with with these more intuitive problems; there is a more fundamental problem rooted simply in mathematics and basic economic theory.
Conventional economic philosophy dictates that individuals rationally acting in their own self-interest would ultimately also benefit society as a whole– a sentiment well-captured by this panel from yesterday’s SMBC comic.
That is, it was conventional until famed economist, mathematician, paranoid schizophrenic, Nobel laureate, and protagonist of the book and film, A Beautiful Mind, John Forbes Nash, forever changed the field with his concept of equilibrium in non-cooperative games. His concept became known as Nash equilibrium and went on to become a cornerstone of contemporary game theory. Continue reading
Much has been said about work and success over the past several months of campaigning, and I believe it is the relation between the two that lies at the root of disagreements between the economic right and left. In my view, the theoretical poles of this spectrum can defined as libertarianism on the right and socialism on the left. To take the extreme positions for a moment, the pure libertarian would consider the relation between one’s work, and success to be perfectly inelastic. That is to say that every unit of work generates a unit of success, or more simply, they are perfectly correlated. At the other end of the spectrum lies the socialist, for whom work and success are perfectly elastic. Success is simply a function of birth, or some other immutable attributes. There is no correlation between work and success. I am fortunate enough to have never met anyone who subscribes to either one of those extremes, however anyone who has an opinion on the matter either implicitly or explicitly falls somewhere along this continuum. As a general principal of political thought, I believe it is essential to acknowledge that all political ideologies are inherently continuous, rather than discrete. Continue reading
It is a hobby of mine to follow my hometown newspaper in order to stay in touch with those local affairs. However, to my great repugnance, I have read about one cyclist fatality after another. In the past month alone, there have been three human beings struck and killed by vehicles, the most recent of whom was killed by a woman with a suspended license. Yet no sooner does the ink dry on the reports of these tragedies than do apologists begin to hurl blame around to everyone but the one behind the wheel. And while it is true that tragic accidents do occasionally happen, what we see most often are not freak occurrences but deaths that were entirely preventable by the driver. But until we begin to hold drivers accountable for their manslaughter, I expect that we will continue to see article after article trying to make sense of why our neighbors’ lives have been cut tragically short. Here are some of the excuses that perpetuate the mindset that the driver can do no wrong.
“Cyclists are reckless, and therefore at fault for their own deaths”
The ‘victim blaming’ card is one that will require a little bit of nuance in order to understand it the way that I do. Every action that we take has consequences: some of which we can reasonably anticipate and others that we can not. All actions, however seemingly insignificant, carry risk. Although some risk may be negligible, everything we do undergoes some sort of internal cost-benefit analysis. However, even though some choices we make can lead us in greater or lesser danger, if an incident was to occur, it is never the fault of the passive party. For example, if I have two possible routes to walk home, and one is longer, but on a well-lit thoroughfare while another is shorter, but through a dark alley, the latter may carry a higher risk than the former. Yet however irresponsible my decision may have been and however much I could have potentially done to prevent it, if I were to get mugged, the fault would lie solely with the mugger. For it is he who perpetrated the crime even if there was conceivably something I could have done to lessen my risk. It is he who actualized my risk into consequence, and without him, my action, however risky, would have passed without incident.